As a working Indian-American mother of two daughters, and after a recent trip to India, I get concerned when I see statistics out of India like this: “India is placed 129th among 146 countries in terms of GII, or gender inequality index, far behind neighbouring Sri Lanka at 74 and lagging most other countries in the region.”(1) It is a bit disconcerting to learn that India is doing so well economically in the world and progressing in other industries, but yet ranking behind countries like China, Philippines, Sri Lanka and Botswana- yep, Botswana ranks higher than India when it comes to a gender gap report. (2) The World Economic Forum does a survey in which it ranks almost 128 countries on “proportion of resources and opportunities made available to women on educational, economic, political and health parities.”(3) Thanks to Mrs. Indira Gandhi who was prime minister of India, India ranked high in the area of political empowerment of women.
So, the largest democracy in the world (pure democracy) and where women are some of the most politically empowered makes me wonder why women are still receiving such disparate treatment. Well, to find an answer you would not have to look far. Visiting India and staying with family, the answer is even clearer. Even today, in the most educated, affluent, and influential households in India, the feudal and patriarchal system including “the joint family” concept still dominates. And, even in bigger cities, daughters live with their parents (in almost all cases) until they marry when they become part of yet another family and oftentimes, these are joint families. The joint family is one in which families live together. The sons stay in the house with their parents, daughters marry into this and in turn, everyone lives together presumably in one big “happy” family. The head of the household is always (I am not generalizing here) male and in that household there may be up to three generations of males running the place — Granddad, Dad, and now, the son this daughter has married. That new household gains a daughter but also appears to dictate whether that daughter can continue to work, and what role she will assume in the family. In villages as compared to bigger cities, the roles may be even more traditional.
Historically, the days of “Mogul” rule in India are quite influential regarding the treatment of women. Keep in mind that Moguls were Muslim, and the concept of multiple wives prevailed in India during that time. The ‘Ramayana’ influenced the present-day concept of Hindus marrying only one wife. In the story of the ‘Ramayana’, King Rama (LORD RAMA) said he would only marry once and his wife, (who was also a Devi or Goddess) Sita, enchanted the hearts of Hindus and to this day, that is the story of why Hindu men only marry one woman instead of multiple wives. However, no one can ignore how Islam still influences Indian culture and philosophy to this day. While India is influenced by many religions depending on the part of India you are in- Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, and Hinduism, there is no doubt Islam played a huge role in Indian history and continues to prevail in modern-day India. Hindus may have gods and goddesses, but the worship of female gods does not appear to vitiate cultural norms which dictate what women should and should not wear, what they should do, and how they should behave or act in society and in the home. More importantly, the culture lends itself to a male-driven society. Sure, western influence is alive and well and making strides towards more equality for women, but based on my personal experience and visits there since the 1970s, I have to say, it is moving at a slower pace than other progresses like technology and infrastructure. Where India is making strides in technology, industry, and manufacturing of goods and products, it is not making the same strides in social progress especially in terms of gender equality. Overall, from conception, boys are still valued more than girls. In household where there are no sons, some keep having children to see if they can have sons- after all, a son is valued more than a daughter. On my side of the family, I have cousins who have only one kid — they will stop at one even if it is a daughter but you hope that she will be treated with the same respect that you treated her with growing up. After all, once she marries she becomes part of another family right down to her middle and last name. That’s right! In India, when a daughter marries, she not only loses her last name, she is expected to take on her husband’s name as her middle name. So, Reena Krishan Shah becomes Reena Harish Patel (assuming she married Harish Patel). All kids, whether male or female inherit their dad’s first name as their middle name when they are born. Do you see a trend here? What happened to the mom who endured hours of labor? Well, her kids will carry the values she imparts on them and that is about it. I thought it interesting that people asked my husband in India (more than one person asked) whether he was happy with two daughters…”Don’t you want a son? Don’t you want to try again one more time for the prospect of a son?”
In poorer, less educated areas of India, it gets even worse. Women who carry daughters are often tortured, and abortion rates are higher if the sex of the fetus is discovered to be female. This is because of the tradition of dowry (something that is slowly being dispensed with in the upper classes) which is alive and well in small, rural, and poorer areas. A dowry is what a family may have to pay (not necessarily money or cash) when marrying their daughter off. Not only are parents of daughters expected to give their daughters “away” literally but also they are expected to “pay the piper” for taking on the burdens of her. All of these trends lend to the surveys and the ranking of India which is low in the area of women’s rights and gender equality. Not only is health care of women and women’s health ranked low in India, education is among the lowest as well especially in rural, poorer areas. Despite having female prime ministers, both India and Pakistan share the same fate and ranking in the arena of gender equality and this is nothing to be proud of even for Indian-Americans.
I like visiting India, not just to see family, but to do a lot of watching, thinking and studying. Culturally rich, India both inspires me and makes me feel sad at times. The poverty and pollution issues aside, each time I visit, I am more and more thankful and grateful for the efforts of Gandhi for freeing India from British rule, President Johnson for opening the gates of immigration to Indians in 1965, and of course, my dad for taking a huge risk coming over to a new “foreign” country to make a new life for himself, my mother and eventually me and my brother. But for one in the aforementioned chain of events, I would not be here where the sky is truly the limit for me.
Now, I do not intend to paint a bad picture of India but this article is focused on the gender gap. India is making great strides in many areas but gender equality appears to have a long way to go. Granted, on a positive note, I have a lot of cousin sisters who are doing quite well for themselves both in India and abroad but I have always thought my family and extended family as the exception not the rule. I have cousin sisters who are working outside the home as engineers, doctors, dentists, designers of clothing lines, running businesses, making jewelry and purses, and yet still balancing work, life, and family. Conversely, I have witnessed and over heard a lot of the opposite as well. I have heard how a distant cousin once taught as a teacher and now that she is married, she is no longer permitted to do so. I heard stories of abuse and mistreatment of a distant relative once she was married into a home that disliked her. In a country where a woman is still segregated and not able to be touched during “that time of the month” for religious reasons, you wonder whether these obstacles can be overcome if they are fundamental – ie. rooted in religion and philosophy. And yet during a time when individuals are worshiping to Goddesses like Durga and Mataji at wonderful times like Diwali, you would think that women would be revered. Again, I re-emphasize that I believe the Mogul influence over India has left its mark. Women who show their shoulders, legs, cleavage, or too much skin in general (short of wearing a burka), are not respected and looked down upon. Granted, cities like Mumbai and Delhi see a lot of progress in these areas, but nonetheless, it is considered that women from “good homes” will NOT wear such outfits and if they do, it is frowned upon and talked about in an ill manner by the elders. Decency and dress codes aside, India is making progress in many areas where it comes to women’s rights and equality. More and more women are in the work force – banking, accounting, teaching, and even non-traditional roles- engineering, doctors, lawyers, and professionals working outside the home. Of course, they have to seek permission from their husbands and husbands’ families after marriage but assuming all are progressive, they may get to achieve their dreams, but then again, if they have kids, the traditional role of the Indian female will most likely be at home. I have yet to see an Indian man in India at home raising kids while the wife runs out to be a bread winner for the family. I think that man would rather commit suicide than face the humiliation of society and I am not making this up- few in India will disagree that no man will stay at home and raise kids while his wife heads out to earn the money to keep that house going. Desperate times may call for desperate measures but these are far and few between and unless a health reason is involved, this would never be tolerated.
Americans can learn a lot from India – respecting elders, taking care of our elders, not becoming a burden on the government, religious and moral convictions, and deep-rooted and unconditional love of family and friends. But conversely, I hope Indians can learn something from us as well and close that gender gap. Granted, America has yet to see a female President or Vice-President but in the cultural sense, I would love to visit an India one day which is at least 80% free of the evils I hear about towards women- dowry-related deaths and torture, abortions of fetuses or killings of live babies simply because of gender, and more reverence of daughters and daughters-in-law and the respect of their right to choose career or home. I have a dream that I will visit an India one day with my two American-born daughters and be able to tell them — “this is your culture… you come from a culture that reveres you, that respects you; that daughters and sons are raised equally, valued equally, and have the same opportunities whether in education, health, politics, in the home, or the workplace.”
That is my one vision for the India that I call the Mother Land.